The United Kingdom is acting very quickly to regulate social media platforms in the wake of recent white-nationalist terror attacks. The United States, on the other hand, is acting as it normally does: holding a deeply unsatisfying Congressional hearing, and letting that stand as a substitute for action.
The subject of today’s hearing of the House Judiciary Committee was “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism.” Witnesses included Google lawyer Alexandria Walden, Facebook policy director Neil Potts, and far-right activist Candace Owens, who repeatedly criticized Democrats for suggesting tech platforms contribute to the spread of hateful ideologies.
Meanwhile, on the tech platform YouTube, users ... spread their hateful ideologies. Adi Robertson reports in The Verge:
The House Judiciary Committee streamed the video live on Google’s own YouTube platform, complete with a live chat feed. Anybody who’s even passingly familiar with YouTube might have flagged this as a bad decision. Hateful, racist comments are notoriously common on the site, and, unsurprisingly, some of YouTube’s worst users immediately descended on the chat with slurs and other attacks.
Commenters insulted Jewish committee chair Jerry Nadler, calling him a “goblin,” and some mocked Walden’s fellow witness, Mohammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters were killed in an alleged hate crime. They espoused the same racist conspiracy theories that the Judiciary Committee was trying to address. Within an hour, the chat was disabled — but not before the incident was covered by several media outlets, including The Washington Post, from which Nadler read in the middle of the hearing.
The irony of a hearing about the intersection of big tech and hate speech itself being flooded with hate speech was not lost on the press. (“YouTube Disabled Comments On Livestreams Of A Congressional Hearing On White Nationalism Because They Were Too Hateful,” BuzzFeed noted.) The doomed live-stream chat underscored how all the big tech platforms — and YouTube in particular — struggle to contain the extremism of their user bases. On YouTube, some channels featuring white nationalists offered live commentary on the hearing, and accepted donations using YouTube’s Super Chat feature, Ryan Broderick reported.
More pressing than YouTube chat, though, was the chat at the hearing itself — which went exactly nowhere. “Here’s what this hearing is NOT doing,” the New York Times’ Cecelia Kang tweeted. “Exploring more deeply [the] germination and spread of hate on dark web sites like Gab and 8Chan[, and] asking Facebook and Google how they are looking around corners for how content/recruiting goes from dark web to their platforms.”
Kang is right to seize on the relationship between fringe forums like 8Chan and larger platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which is still not well understood. Given the frequency with which white nationalists on one platform build new followings on others, it’s a subject worthy of serious consideration. (And unworthy of the presence of Candace Owens, who has called concerns about white nationalism “stupid.”)
Instead of that consideration, though, we got a circus. And it won’t be the only one of the week: on Wednesday the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee is holding yet another hearing on the specter of bias against conservatives on big tech platforms. “Bias” in these hearings refers to any time a member of Congress or one of their constituents failed to achieve some desired result in social media — a number of retweets, or a certain placement in search results.
Both white nationalism and hearings about systematic bias against conservatives are, at their root, conspiracy theories — fantasies that a shadowy other is secretly manipulating the world around you, threatening your prosperity. But only one of those issues has so far inspired a global terror movement. Tech platforms have a role to play in reducing the spread of white nationalism — but so, too, does the federal government. And the fact that one house of Congress would rather talk about how many Facebook likes they’re getting ought to give all of us pause.
Speaking of white nationalism, here’s a good look at some of the practical challenges of moderating nationalist speech on Facebook.
David McCabe reports that Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) introduced a bill on Tuesday to outlaw some of the manipulative design features used by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others to obtain user data or consent more easily.
The bill would make it illegal for one of the services to “design, modify, or manipulate a user interface with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice to obtain consent or user data,” according to its draft text.
Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy report that there are important differences between Democrats on Twitter and Democrats in real life:
The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project. This latter group has the numbers to decide the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of a relatively moderate establishment favorite, as it has often done in the past.
Christine Schmidt analyzed links in Facebook’s local news section in 10 cities:
What did I see? Satire, obituaries from funeral home websites, lots of local TV, and a weird network of sites that scrape other local news and yet somehow make it into Facebook’s scanner. And again, over half of the news was just crime, courts, and dead bodies.
After pressure from the European Commission, Facebook has clarified its terms of service to clarify some details of how it uses customer data:
The new terms detail what services, Facebook sells to third parties that are based on the use of their user’s data, how consumers can close their accounts and under what reasons accounts can be disabled. These developments come after exchanges, which aimed at obtaining full disclosure of Facebook’s business model in a comprehensive and plain language to users.
In the time-honored tradition of all internet streaming platforms, people are using Facebook’s group video-watching platform to watch pirated movies, Rob Price reports.
Facebook’s AI-generated map of where people live has come to Africa, James Vincent reports:
Although we have high-resolution satellite imagery that covers pretty much every corner of the globe, turning this into useful information is a time-consuming process. To create population density maps, for example, humans have to label each building in the images, then cross-reference this with census data. This is particularly tricky in the African continent where census tracts can cover regions as large as 150,000 square miles but contain just 55,000 people.
Luckily, this sort of task — tedious but simple — is perfect for AI. To automate this process, Facebook’s engineers used data from open-source mapping project Open Street Map to train a computer vision system that can recognize buildings in satellite imagery. They then used this to remove the vast majority of the satellite data that showed unoccupied land.
Tanya Chen talks to the creator of the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, which highlights the flashy footwear worn by religious leaders:
The account has drawn all kinds of comments and discussions, and of this writing has more than 20,000 followers. “Registered Flex Offenders,” some joke, while others are interpreting the account’s message very seriously.
“This account is like the 21st century version of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door,” one person commented.
Catherine Clifford rounds up Jack Dorsey’s recent statements about his personal health care regimen, which includes long periods of fasting, leading to widespread discussion on Twitter today about eating disorders.
Alex Heath talks to the executive leading Snap’s augmented reality and camera platform:
PILIPSKI: I think augmented reality has been misused so many times by the industry. There is always someone saying that augmented reality is going to be the thing that is going to change everything, right? And then every time someone does something with augmented reality, everyone is so disappointed. Like, “This is it?”
I think the fact that Bobby and Evan chose self-expression and creativity as a product that is going to benefit from augmented reality—and really focused on the true value of the product versus the technology—that’s what makes these things so successful on Snapchat and to our community.
A singer named Lil Nas X has an extremely catchy hit on his hands with “Old Town Road,” and it got popular thanks primarily to TikTok, Lindsay Zoladz reports:
Although it was uploaded to SoundCloud in December, “Old Town Road” didn’t take off until it hit the popular video app TikTok, a kind of Vine replacement that lets users easily experiment with in-camera editing effects. “Old Town Road” spawned the #YeehawChallenge: Over that opening lick, a person stands before the camera in plain clothes and then, with a sudden hop—like the jump cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey when filmic magic upgrades an ape’s bone to a spaceship—they land back to earth in cowboy attire.
An even simpler version of the meme is flourishing too, in photos (like, say, these of Chris Paul) depicting people before and [dons cowboy hat] after listening to “Old Town Road.” The notion that “goin’ country” is a surface-level performance, an identity that can be worn or removed as easily as a hat, might be offensive to those invested in the notion that there is such a thing as “authentic” country music or fans. But the message of the yeehaw memes also calls to mind the hook of a 2009 Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins song (that is, for the record, infinitely sillier than “Old Town Road”), “We all got a hillbilly bone down deep inside.”
“Tributes” are a new feature for Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, Chaim Gartenberg reports:
Facebook has announced some new changes to the way it’s handling the memorialized profiles of people who have died by adding a new tributes section to those pages. Friends and family members will be able to continue to post memories of loved ones on their pages.
The goal of the new system is twofold: it allows memorialized profiles to remain as they were before the user died, and it also provides a central place for people to share and read memories and other posts.
Choose the wrong path and you may find yourself radicalized!
And finally ...
Today I wrote about Jumbo, a new app from Sunrise calendar creator Pierre Valade that manages privacy settings across all your apps. I fully expect said apps to strangle Jumbo in the crib, but in the meantime, how’s this for user-centered design?
Facebook offers no API to let developers change privacy settings, so Jumbo has to fudge it. In essence, the app uses scripts to mimic the process of clicking on the various settings to change them to your liking. “We’re not doing anything you wouldn’t be able to do yourself,” Valade says. “We’re trying to be a third party who works on your behalf to help you simplify and make decisions about a complex system.”
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